Interview | FFS 5 with EllaHarp

Ella Dawn Jenkins and her harp make quite the team. Ergo, EllaHarp is as fitting a name as any for the San Francisco singer-songwriter’s de facto indie folk project. Meshing elements of blues and pop into her work, Jenkins pushes the conventional boundaries laid for a classical string instrument such as the harp. In doing so, she leads the charge for unconventional innovators of traditional instruments, much in the same vein as Greg Mulkern’s Banjolectric.

Yet, a studied, rhythmic set of streaming musical plateaus also define EllaHarp. Jenkins leans into what has always made the harp tick instead of leaning away. She’s learned to play on its strengths in a way that sensibly wraps the instrument around her bluesier inclinations instead of the other way around. How naturally everything about EllaHarp flows is palpable and rich, and it’s notable because it comes across as nondescript as it does. For a project that touts its breaking of conventions so thoroughly on its sleeve, EllaHarp does not stutter in the self-indulgence that often begets such bold experiments. Through Jenkins, it’s an expertly-crafted work developed by an astute and heartened artist.

Jenkins took part in For Folk’s Sake’s ongoing ‘FFS 5’ interview series, wherein each artist or band answers the same set of five questions. Her answers may be viewed below.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I’m an artist and singer songwriter of blues, folk and pop influence in San Francisco. I’ve been playing harp since I was 8, but just began finding my own way with it over the last few years. Started out playing classical, then rebelled to trad (and spent 4 years studying it at uni in Scotland), and more recently rebelled to playing my stuff.

Sometime mid 2016 I started designing a harp I could fit in an airplane overhead, and 3 iterations later it’s a real game changer. Being able to travel with it means I’m as free as a guitarist or a fiddle player, and that’s not a feeling you take lightly when you play the kind of instrument that frequently requires being moved in something the size of a hearse.

I’ve also recently finished making my first banjo, designed to fit inside my harp case for travel and that’s going to be a big one as time goes on, I believe.

As an artist, how do you define success?

Success in the arts is a funny one. When you make a living doing something, you’re considered successful in many (most?) fields, but with music it’s like if someone’s neighbor’s grandmother hasn’t seen you sing on TV does it really count? I mostly hold success as a personal sort of introspect, but grateful this wild plan of mine pays for my low overhead life (most of the time).

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

I’m constantly boggled by the number of ways someone can ‘make it’ these days. There are so many platforms and paths to reach people, it’s fantastic but extremely scattering for the scatterbrained among us.

That and it is damn near impossible as a self represented artist without 10s of 1000s of followers to get a response from people in the music industry. I’m often half tempted to write something truly ridiculous at the end of an email and see if it ever gets mentioned in the response I don’t get. Haven’t tried it, but the thought keeps me going.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

The way I look at it, if you don’t completely suck (or maybe even if you do…) and you stick with all the aspects of it and keep putting out content you’re bound to make it somewhere eventually. I like to think there’s nothing my little harp and I can’t achieve with this mindset, so I aim for silly, totally unrealistic heights (combined with the knowledge that 490 of my 500 emails will probably go unanswered). Who knows? It might just work.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

Creativity saves my ass every day. I design/sew all my clothing (though not socks or jeans as of now) and make all my leather goods (bags, notebooks, wallets, etc) jewelry and whatever else that is out of my price range or not the way I’d like it.

Constantly designing and making keeps me in the head space that most things are within reach if I take the time to figure out how they work and what improvements/adjustments could be made for a specific need. Thinking this way, music seems to flow much easier. Especially when playing instruments I’ve made, it’s a wonderful, interconnected kind of feeling <3

Words by: Jonathan Frahm